At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Bringing Out the Dead

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Cliff Curtis, Mary Beth Hurt, Aida Turturro, Michael K. Williams; Voices of: Martin Scorsese, Queen Latifah/ Runtime: 121 minutes

I feel it must be said that, out of a lot of the movies I have found myself watching here lately not just for the site, but for pure enjoyment, Bringing Out The Dead is a rare breed of film. By that I mean this is a film that does not in any way, shape, form, or fashion make what it’s about seem infinitely more luxurious than it actually is. Indeed this is just simply something that I am not used to seeing in the land of movie magic. That is because, if you watch enough movies, you really come to learn that film has quite an unhealthy addiction with luxurizing nearly everything that should not be seen as such from violent behaviors, narcotics, and sex to other deviant and troublesome behaviors. They also convince, showcase, and try to sell you messages that are not correct in every sense of the word. Yet that is what makes this film as special as it is. Indeed not only is this an anti-violence and narcotics movie to an extent, but it also gets the opportunity to give audiences this message through a truly talented cast in a manner that is both concise and comprehensive. Above all though this may be one of 1999’s most unnerving as well as uncompromising movies, but it’s also a really really good one to come from 1999. Indeed it may not have the built-in audience that a lot of Scorsese’s filmography seems to have, but this is still a well-cast and well-made trip through madness you won’t soon forget….

The plot is as follows: Bringing Out the Dead focuses on a burned out, alcohol-loving, unable to sleep NYC ambulance driver by the name of Frank Pierce who is at his wit’s end. Indeed as told to the audience by Frank himself, he hasn’t saved anyone in months. As such he’s finding himself really believing in concepts like the fact that when a spirit vacates a body, quite often it simply doesn’t want to return as well as really feeling like he is nothing more than a “grief mop” whose only genuine contribution to society is to be the key witness to all the death and suffering in the world around him. He also is finding himself severely haunted by the apparitions of the people he wasn’t able to save, but most specifically a young homeless woman with asthma by the name of Rose.

As the film starts, Frank and his partner for the night named Larry find themselves trying in vain to bring back a man who has had a heart attack. Yet while, as the man’s daughter looks on in horror, Larry is successful in bringing him back the chaos-ridden and severely way too crowded hospital, however, simply just chooses to put him in a corner and just pump him full of drugs and then only defib him back to life when the situation calls for it. Yet while talking with the victim’s daughter, Frank actually seems touched by her in a way, and begins to feel that maybe if he can help her, then perhaps it will help him be rid of the ghosts once and for all. It also, thankfully, gifts Frank with a balance to the insanity he encounters on emergency calls with his partners Larry, Marcus, and Walls. Yet it really doesn’t matter just where Frank goes or what he does because he still finds himself seeing Rose’s face on all the homeless that he encounters on a nightly basis. Thus the film is basically a snapshot of Frank’s life. A snapshot that consists of a trio of days in what can best be described as hell as seen from the point of view of a speeding ambulance by which a blurred, uncertain, frightening, and often oppressive world goes flying by with no real regard for anything except trying to get patients to a overcrowded hospital that really doesn’t have any regard for most of the patients that come through those doors except sometimes to do the bare minimum and no more, no less…

Now if I am being honest with you movie goer then you should know that there isn’t quite what you would consider it to be a traditional narrative structure to this film. Yet, in my opinion, I honestly feel that this is for the best due to the film not meaning in any way to be what you might consider an A-Z narrative structure. Rather this is a film which is designed to be a glimpse not only into a person’s inner self, but also into the things that haunt him the most. As such, it is my opinion that had this film employed a typical narrative structure, it would have detracted severely from the points that this film was trying to make. Therefore due to this unique narrative structure, a lot of what propels the story forward in the film originates mainly from the back-and-forth that Frank shares with his 3 respective wing-men. Indeed each of this trio manage to showcase a distinct method for dealing with the trauma and agony that this intense job brings into people’s lives. Indeed Larry seems to be blessed with the ability to just psychological block out the horrors that this job brings and also sees it as nothing more than a means to an end, Marcus meanwhile chooses to place everything in God’s hands right down to his core belief that if anyone passes away whilst he’s on the clock then it was plain and simply their time, and Walls is just plain and simply a borderline psychopath who seems equally gifted in both horrifying the daylights out of patients and completely annihilating the headlights of the ambulance he drives with a baseball bat as his method of dealing with the chaos all around him. However if it’s this unholy trio that moves the narrative forward, then I feel that the duo that is Frank and Mary are who give the film its emotional core due to Frank finding himself drawing closer and closer to Mary, and she in turn finds herself opening up more and more to him. Thus the movie tries to send the message to audiences that not only does this pair need one another, but that the reason they need each other is because they each can quell the pain and hurt that the other is feeling on the inside better than anyone else ever could.

Now Bringing Out the Dead marks the fourth time that Scorsese and Paul Schrader have worked together on a film, and it is safe to say that, as usual, this collaboration manages to be showcase for some concepts that they have touched on before including faith, guilt, hope, and redemption. Yet even though quite a few people have decided to focus on just how alike this film and Taxi Driver are, I feel that all the similarities that people mention are plain and simply superficial at best. Indeed even though yes Frank and Travis Bickle are both cynical, alone, and sick in certain ways individuals, Frank I strongly feel genuinely cares about people and wants to help them. Travis on the other hand is a complete sociopath who has absolutely no regard for human life and wants to clean the “junk” off the streets by any means necessary. Also while Bickle inflicts those around him with a sense of homicidal anger, Frank inflicts the world around him with a sense of both terror as well as despair. Indeed I really appreciated how Schrader manages to give this narrative as well as its main character a few layers of true complexity to the point that when Frank commits an act that is both surprising and uncertain from a moral standpoint, we surprisingly can comprehend his reasoning for doing what he does, and as such, find ourselves able to sympathize as well.

Now it should come as no surprise then to learn that in regards to the work done by the technical departments Bringing Out the Dead is an absolutely spot-on affair. Indeed this starts with stellar camera work from a top camera pro by the name of Robert Richardson who has managed to do an absolutely remarkable job at providing the city with a nauseating and moody atmosphere with special regard to a scene where a character is left dangling from the balcony on the 16th floor of a building whilst in the background fireworks go off behind him. In addition, the editing done by Thelma Schoonmaker is a true masterclass. Indeed not only does she manage to provide the scenes with the pace and energy that they require as well as some camera tricks that, during the sequences where Frank and his co-horts head to where their dispatch sends them, will most assuredly give an individual vertigo or at least make them dizzy with how much it feels like they were filmed on speed.

Now when he is working with material that isn’t some Direct-to-DVD garbage, I definitely feel that Nicholas Cage is a truly gifted actor who can give one heck of a performance. This film is most certainly proof of that because Cage manages to provide an absolutely wonderful performance that also has a vast range from an pathos perspective that ultimately is quite exhausting to watch in the best way possible due to the fact that you are literally watching a man slowly but surely go unhinged due to the horrific and draining nature of his chosen profession and Cage manages to sell us on this man and his demons perfectly. Also doing wonderful work is Patricia Arquette who in her role provides audiences with a subtle yet quite emotional look at an individual who has seen the pit of the abyss and is now struggling to avoid going back into the pit because she’s afraid if she falls back in again she won’t come back out. Finally we also get dependably good work from Goodman, Rhames and Sizemore as Cage’s wing-men of sorts on his trips into the heart of madness, Marc Anthony as a homeless lunatic that Cage finds himself constantly running into, and Cliff Curtis as a dealer who, in addition to selling product, also runs an “oasis” of sorts to help people in the city just kick back and relax for a little while. Indeed I have always found that a top-notch director and a phenomenal script are usually wonderful incentives for a cast to bring their very best from a performance-perspective to a film. Suffice it to say then that the duo that is Scorsese and Schrader manage to really truly bring out the absolute best in this powerhouse cast.

All in all Bringing Out the Dead is a film that most certainly was not meant for every single audience member in the world to enjoy. Indeed the fact that this film does not possess what would be considered by many to be the typical plot arc will most likely baffle and then push away some interested parties, and then the manner in which the film chooses to realistically take a deep look into some of the darker alleyways of the nature of humanity will unnerve others. Yet these particulars are things which have come to be seen as defining elements of Scorsese’s and there are elements from his other films at play here too. Indeed there is the befuddlement of “After Hours”, the inability to figure out how to proceed from an emotional standpoint like in “Age of Innocence”, the feeling like you are truly all alone and no one really understands you or really wants to that is present in “Taxi Driver”, and the search for some kind of meaning to life like in “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Suffice it to say than that although Bringing Out the Dead is not the easiest film in the world to sit through, and there are moments where you find it difficult not to take your eyes off the screen it does have one crucial thing going for it. That is the fact that this film, unlike so many others is genuine, and it will be a part of you no matter what and that is sometimes all a movie needs in order to succeed. On a scale of 1-5 I give Bringing Out the Dead a 3.5 out of 5.